Before going any further, let me admit that I’ve always found the Onion a brilliant and hilarious satirical force, and I envy the writers who work for the Onion for their comic genius. Although I’ve never been a regular Onion reader, I have bought several of their collections and inspired collaborative works, including Our Dumb Century and Our Dumb World.
It would also be disingenuous to deny that the Onion has probably influenced my perception in formulating what I consider funny. I haven’t taken the time to go back and read much of what I’ve written here too extensively; it’s all I can do to try to keep generating more before the lights go out for good. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I took offense at some of the vitriol I’ve unleashed on these pages. It may have been cathartic at the time, but that doesn’t mean it was necessarily therapeutic for the reader.
I finally broke down and bought their latest big book, The Onion Book of Known Knowledge. I’d had reservations about picking it up, not having been unduly impressed by the excerpt I read on the “Truthout” website. In case you didn’t already know, the book is a parody of an encyclopedia (Truthout featured the entire offerings for the letter “A”, admittedly a generous donation on the Onion’s part).
I’d looked for a critical review of the book on the internet without success; the only reviews I was able to find were exclusively positive, which may have helped cajole me to buying it. After all, I’m not above succumbing to knee-jerk purchases after drinking in a slew of blurbs at the beginning of a book, or on its back cover. (Speaking of back covers, when I looked at the one on the Onion’s book the first time I finally held the item in my hands a month or so ago, I was turned off by a comment on the promotional sleeve wrapped around the bottom of the black tome that made a crack about the “pathetic little bookstore” that offered it for sale, or some such heartless remark. That should have been enough of a clue. Of course, you could also say, to hell with me if I can’t take a joke, which seems to be the Onion’s motto.)
After removing its plastic sheath and opening it up on the bus, I laughed out loud at the first thing I saw, a picture of Gandhi with a caption that essentially said, “Wouldn’t you be a pacifist too if you had a chest like this?” (Then again, poor Gandhi.) I also enjoyed the piss-takes against Dick Cheney, the only man in human history who’s gotten everything he ever wanted in life, and Henry Kissinger, who escaped genocide in Germany in order to bring genocide to Cambodia (real-life irony at its finest–which is an Onionesque thing to say).
Then I chanced upon a diagram of someone performing CPR on a prone man. The illustration recommended the person performing the rescue attempt first smash the other person’s jaw, open his mouth and spit into it, break his ribcage, open the airway by poking a hole in his throat with a screwdriver, saw his arms off, and knock him out with a baseball bat.
Cringing as I read this, and laughing uncomfortably in spite of myself, I wondered how one of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing would feel about it, or how their loved ones would respond. It led me to pay closer attention to the Onion’s philosophy, if that’s the right word for their approach to humor, or world view, and it reminded me of something my older brother said a long time ago, when he was in college and I was in junior high school.
I asked him if he was still a National Lampoon fan, telling him I’d acquired a taste for the magazine (even though I didn’t start reading it until the late seventies, as I’d been too busy watching television before that). He said, “It’s gotten too nihilistic for me.”
The Onion’s encyclopedia parody presents itself as anarchic and apolitical. They slag both major political parties in the U. S. (and rightly so), but they also take potshots at a few of my heroes, including Michael Moore, whom they call a dildo (oh, contraire–he’s a mensch), and Jane Goodall, who gets a cheap, sophomoric laugh in the form of a snort (not that I laughed) when they say she must have at least once “made it to second base” with a chimpanzee (if that’s true, then Laura Bush has her trumped and has her two lovely daughters to prove it–congratulations on your new arrival; let’s hope he or she doesn’t grow up to be a mass murderer like her grandfather, great-grandfather, or great uncle Jeb, Florida’s former provider of fatal needles to people awaiting execution on death row).
The entry on the John Lennon song “Imagine” poignantly says that Lennon only had to wait nine years for his inspired composition to fulfill its promise–as far as his own frail human life was concerned–and the one on Martin Luther King claims his last words after being shot were that he and friends “all saw it coming”.
The entry on zoology has a subsection entitled “Some Species of Animals and How to Kill Them” (as if we needed any help in that department), while the gentle giraffe is given the predatory attributes of a boa constrictor. While the absurdity of the latter description is undoubtedly amusing, the overall message appears to be: nature is doomed anyway so we might as well shrug our shoulders and give up.
Ditto the civil rights movement and any humble attempts to improve upon the suffering world. Why martyr yourself when your puny, miserable life isn’t going to make a speck of difference anyhow? It’s laughter without inspiration.
As Lou Reed says, riffing on the Statue of Liberty’s promise to desperate refugees from distant lands: “Give me your tired, your poor. I’ll piss on ’em. Let’s just club ’em to death and dump ’em out on the boulevard.” (Goldman Sachs, give that man a job!)
The photograph of Paul Newman, another hero for his idealism and far-reaching philanthropy, bears the following legend: “There isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t kiss Newman’s lipless, maggot-riddled face if given the chance.”
Okay, I get it–so death wins and it’s disgusting and useless so you might as well surrender to the cynically omnivorous corporate order and laugh about it. I’m not sure where all the mean-spiritedness comes from (Charles Dickens, by the way, is depicted as a slave-driving Scrooge who forces orphans to write his novels for him, creative mass production a la James Michener, at least according to rumor–although his scribes were duly paid). These guys must be making a ton of money; aren’t they getting laid enough? (Not getting any, at least in my experience, tends to result in defensiveness and randomly lashing out at undeserving parties; sexual frustration must be one of the leading sources of everyday unhappiness in the world, and that’s leaving out all the much more serious ones like famine, disease, civil war–you name it.)
I’ve only dipped into the Onion’s glossy tome in a cursory way, and I’m not sure how much more I can stomach. I expect it will deliver some genuine belly-laughs, and I might have a good time reading parts of it. But I’ll also feel as if I’ve been had. Too bad I already threw away the receipt; otherwise I’d probably take it back to the excellent bookstore where I bought it and ask for a refund. The people who work there are so nice though, and I’m such a loyal customer that–who knows?–they might even give me one anyway.
I disagree with the Onion’s implications that nothing is sacred. Keep in mind that I’m incredibly skeptical about religion and have braved fanaticism at its worst, up close and personal, in the form of my wife, a fundamentalist Christian who, despite her various virtues, is one of the most intolerant, puritanical, fun-loathing, anti-everything unrelated to Jesus, the church, or the Bible, homophobic people I’ve ever met. Living with her has been a hell of a workout; if it goes on much longer it’s bound to kill me.
But I’m more inclined to think that more in life is sacred than not, and that, despite my own disabled thinking that leads me to be mechanically pessimistic far too much of the time, that you’re more inclined to find joy by saying yes than by saying no, which sounds too much like “D’oh!”
Besides, as Louis C.K. so eloquently demonstrates, you have no right to criticize other people unless you’re willing to poke fun at yourself.
In the words of Martin Mull, “If we can’t kid each other, who can we kid?”
The answer is ourselves.
Thanks to the Onion for making me cry; what started out as tears of laughter turned into a stream of despair.